Opinion

France and Germany: a moment of truth

France and Germany, which together account for half of euro-area GDP, are rightly considered the key to the euro area’s exit from the current impasse of low growth, falling inflation and increasingly dangerous debt trajectories. But more importantly, the German-French couple is a clear example of the need for a coordinated strategy.

By: and Date: November 25, 2014 Topic: Macroeconomic policy

France and Germany, which together account for half of euro-area GDP, are rightly considered the key to the euro area’s exit from the current impasse of low growth, falling inflation and increasingly dangerous debt trajectories. But more importantly, the German-French couple is a clear example of the need for a coordinated strategy. Their unit labour costs have diverged by some 20% since the introduction of the single currency. This would not necessarily be worrying, but the world market share of French exports has fallen by more than twice that of Germany, and the current account gap has increased by more than 8% of GDP. France has not compensated for its rising costs by higher non-price competitiveness, while the German low-cost strategy has made the country more and more dependent on foreign markets. 

The German-French couple is a clear example of the need for a coordinated strategy

The steady decline in inflation and the increase in the euro area’s current-account surplus are an indication that aggregate demand is too low in the euro area and in France and Germany. The stagnation of total factor productivity since the mid-2000s in several euro-area countries (including France) is an indication that deep reforms are needed for long-term growth to restart, and therefore for the sustainability of social systems.

To break out of the current economic impasse, a bold, coordinated Franco-German strategy is needed. It requires simultaneous implementation of measures in both countries.

Currently, there is no political consensus in France for far-reaching reforms that would encompass structural spending cuts and changes to some services market regulations, and would also improving the functioning of the labour market. This could be done, for example, by reconsidering the labour contract in order to incentivise long-term hiring, or averaging working time across the year, rather than week by week, which would be a smooth way of reducing unit labour costs. There is also, so far, no consensus in France on the need for education system reform. Such reforms would boost French productivity growth, stimulate innovation and also help to narrow the unit labour cost gap with Germany.

Before the full gain from productivity can be reaped, wages and other costs such as housing will need to grow more slowly in France than in Germany, so that the former can regain competitiveness and the latter can alleviate its excess dependence on external demand.

Germany should gear its efforts to boosting its own economic activity. Boosting domestic demand is part of the answer and could be quickly achieved through lower taxes on low-income households and a credible strategy for public investment. For this, accepting that the “black-zero” balanced budget must be given up is essential. But structural reform to develop the non-traded goods sectors, for example IT services, is also essential. The introduction of a minimum wage next year increases the need to focus on such high value-added sectors. The education system should support a shift to the new growth sectors of the 21st century, where Germany is lagging behind. This renewed economic dynamism needs eventually to lead to an inflation rate of above 2 percent, which is required to support the rebalancing.

With the prospect of an increase in demand and inflation in Germany, the French government would have more leeway to cut social contributions and social spending, and to implement far-reaching structural reforms. The French government’s recent announcements of reforms to protected sectors, although going in the right direction, will not be sufficient. Aggregate demand is not only a question of fiscal stance. France needs to reduce the uncertainty surrounding future policies, which is currently a powerful drag on private investment. Clarifying the future path of tax rates and energy and carbon prices is one issue. Agreeing on a number of medium-term fundamental objectives covering issues such as vocational training, tertiary education, lifetime working hours, the health system and housing subsidies, are needed to anchor expectations. Credibility, through political agreement on medium-term objectives is needed to trigger private investments.

The success of such a joint strategy will of course depend on what happens at euro-area level

The success of such a joint strategy will of course depend on what happens at euro-area level: on the ability to finance European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker’s €300 billion investment project with fresh money, on the willingness of the European Central Bank to do what it considers necessary to meet its target of an inflation rate “below but close to 2 percent”, and on the ability of the European Commission and the European Council to enforce the fiscal rules without suffocating the economy. France and Germany have a major responsibility as shareholders in the European Investment Bank and as direct participants in the European Council. But, equally importantly, they have a responsibility to reduce the structural divergence between them by introducing coordinated deep economic reforms at national level. 


Republished with permission from Le Monde


Republishing and referencing

Bruegel considers itself a public good and takes no institutional standpoint.

Due to copyright agreements we ask that you kindly email request to republish opinions that have appeared in print to [email protected].

Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

May
25
14:30

How can we support and restructure firms hit by the COVID-19 crisis?

What are the vulnerabilities and risks in the enterprise sector and how prepared are countries to handle a large-scale restructuring of businesses?

Speakers: Ceyla Pazarbasioglu and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Macroeconomic policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event More on this topic
 

Upcoming Event

May - Jun
31-1
10:30

MICROPROD Final Event

Final conference of the MICROPROD project

Speakers: Carlo Altomonte, Eric Bartelsman, Marta Bisztray, Italo Colantone, Maria Demertzis, Wolfhard Kaus, Javier Miranda, Steffen Müller, Verena Plümpe, Niclas Poitiers, Andrea Roventini, Gianluca Santoni, Valerie Smeets, Nicola Viegi and Markus Zimmermann Topic: Macroeconomic policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels
Read about event
 

Past Event

Past Event

[Cancelled] Shifting taxes in order to achieve green goals

[This event is cancelled until further notice] How could shifting the tax burden from labour to pollution and resources help the EU reach its climate goals?

Speakers: Niclas Poitiers and Femke Groothuis Topic: Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: May 12, 2022
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

How are crises changing central bank doctrines?

How is monetary policy evolving in the face of recent crises? With central banks taking on new roles, how accountable are they to democratic institutions?

Speakers: Maria Demertzis, Benoît Coeuré, Pervenche Berès, Hans-Helmut Kotz and Athanasios Orphanides Topic: Macroeconomic policy Location: Bruegel, Rue de la Charité 33, 1210 Brussels Date: May 11, 2022
Read article Download PDF More by this author
 

Book/Special report

European governanceInclusive growth

Bruegel annual report 2021

The Bruegel annual report provides a broad overview of the organisation's work in the previous year.

By: Bruegel Topic: Banking and capital markets, Digital economy and innovation, European governance, Global economy and trade, Green economy, Inclusive growth, Macroeconomic policy Date: May 6, 2022
Read article Download PDF
 

Policy Contribution

European governance

Fiscal support and monetary vigilance: economic policy implications of the Russia-Ukraine war for the European Union

Policymakers must think coherently about the joint implications of their actions, from sanctions on Russia to subsidies and transfers to their own citizens, and avoid taking measures that contradict each other. This is what we try to do in this Policy Contribution, focusing on the macroeconomic aspects of relevance for Europe.

By: Olivier Blanchard and Jean Pisani-Ferry Topic: European governance, Macroeconomic policy Date: April 29, 2022
Read article Download PDF More on this topic
 

Working Paper

The low productivity of European firms: how can policies enhance the allocation of resources?

A summary of the most important policy lessons from research undertaken in the MICROPROD project work package 4, related to the allocation of the factors of production, with a special focus on the weak dynamism of European small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

By: Grégory Claeys, Marie Le Mouel and Giovanni Sgaravatti Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: April 25, 2022
Read article More on this topic
 

External Publication

What drives implementation of the European Union’s policy recommendations to its member countries?

Article published in the Journal of Economic Policy Reform.

By: Konstantinos Efstathiou and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: April 13, 2022
Read article Download PDF More on this topic More by this author
 

Working Paper

Measuring the intangible economy to address policy challenges

The purpose of the first work package of the MICROPROD project was to improve the firm-level data infrastructure, expand the measurement of intangible assets and enable cross-country analyses of these productivity trends.

By: Marie Le Mouel Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: April 11, 2022
Read about event More on this topic
 

Past Event

Past Event

Macroeconomic and financial stability in changing times: conversation with Andrew Bailey

Guntram Wolff will be joined in conversation by Andrew Bailey, Governor of the Bank of England.

Speakers: Andrew Bailey and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: March 28, 2022
Read article
 

Opinion

European governance

How to reconcile increased green public investment needs with fiscal consolidation

The EU’s ambitious emissions reduction targets will require a major increase in green investments. This column considers options for increasing public green investment when major consolidations are needed after the fiscal support provided during the pandemic. The authors make the case for a green golden rule allowing green investment to be funded by deficits that would not count in the fiscal rules. Concerns about ‘greenwashing’ could be addressed through a narrow definition of green investments and strong institutional scrutiny, while countries with debt sustainability concerns could initially rely only on NGEU for their green investment.

By: Zsolt Darvas and Guntram B. Wolff Topic: European governance, Green economy, Macroeconomic policy Date: March 8, 2022
Read article More on this topic More by this author
 

Opinion

The week inflation became entrenched

The events that have unfolded since 24 February have solved one dispute: inflation is no longer temporary.

By: Maria Demertzis Topic: Macroeconomic policy Date: March 8, 2022
Load more posts